Women's History Month - Margaret Brent
March 6, 2020 - Written by Kim Bradley
Have you ever been brushed aside because you are a girl? Has your voice ever been ignored or shouted down because others don’t value it? Have you ever been told that you can’t or shouldn’t do what you know is right? If so, then you have something in common with Margaret Brent. You’ve probably never heard of her, despite her extraordinary accomplishments of fearlessness and determination. She is one of the figures that 29:11 Group is highlighting in March for Women’s National History Month. We will feature amazing stories of girls and women who might not be famous Instagrammers but who are nonetheless incredibly inspiring and downright astonishing. We hope that you will see a little piece of yourself in these role models and be energized to get out there and show your girl power!
This month’s featured heroine is one of the first settlers in the colony of Maryland. She probably never intended to be a standard bearer for women’s independence, but that’s exactly what she has become. Her inner core of steely strength beneath a truly caring and altruistic presence made her a colonial force of nature.
Margaret Brent lived in a 17th century world where women were second class citizens. They generally couldn’t own property, couldn’t have jobs in business or government, didn’t have the right to vote, and didn’t have the power to manage their own affairs. If they wanted a voice, they had to get a man to speak for them. Ugh. I’m getting angry just thinking about it, and there are women in the world today who live under the same oppressive conditions. But back to our unassuming heroine:
In 1638 Margaret Brent found herself on a ship sailing to the new colony of Maryland, chartered as a place where both Catholics and Protestants could live in harmony free from government interference. Not only was Margaret Brent a single woman in a man’s world, she and her sister moved to a place where people had to grow their own food, build their own houses, make their own clothes, and labor to keep themselves warm in winter. Obviously, that didn’t leave much time to fight for women’s rights. Faced with adversity, Margaret Brent could have given up and married someone, or could have stayed in England where life was easier. Instead, she chose adventure, a difficult challenge, and a new opportunity. Her decision to step confidently into the unknown serves as an example for us all.
In a colonial world controlled by men, Margaret Brent accomplished the following extraordinary feats:
1. She was the first woman to practice in a court of law in America. She did not go to law school and did not apprentice with another attorney, as many lawyers did at that time. She quietly studied the law, learned her rights, and represented herself and others in the provincial court. She was an advocate for at least a dozen colonists over the course of several years, and her cases can be found in the Maryland archives.
2. She was the first woman in America to request the right to vote. That’s right – on January 21, 1648, Margaret Brent appeared before the Maryland legislature in St. Mary’s City and pled her case for the same right to vote as the men of the colony. Incredibly, this happened almost 300 years before American women officially earned the right to vote under the 19th Amendment. She was a woman well ahead of her time!
3. She was the representative for Maryland’s First Governor, Leonard Calvert. Governor Calvert, one of Maryland’s founders, came to trust Margaret Brent as an adviser and a woman of high moral character. When he became ill, he appointed her as executrix of his will, in charge of paying his accounts and disposing of his estate, instructing her to “take all and pay all.” This appointment was an absolutely unbelievable accomplishment for a woman in colonial times. Keep in mind that this is the same century in which women accused of witchcraft were being burned at the stake in Maryland’s sister colonies to the north.
4. She sought and was granted the right to own land in her own name. By all accounts, Margaret Brent managed her property with skill and exceptional good judgment. She kept herds of cattle, grew tobacco, employed workers to maintain her farm, and acquired additional property by making practical business deals. John L. Thomas has written of Margaret Brent: “If she had been a queen, she would have been as brilliant and daring as Elizabeth; had she been born a man, she would have been a Cromwell in her courage and audacity.”
5. She protected the colony following a Protestant rebellion. In 1645 a Protestant pirate named Richard Ingle launched a surprise attack on the Catholic colonists, burning their crops and killing many of the local landowners over a period of years. Finally, a ragtag army of soldiers from Virginia was brought in by Governor Calvert to defeat the rebellion. Unfortunately, the Governor grew ill and suffered an untimely death before the soldiers were paid. The colony was running out of food (hello, burned crops), and no one had money to compensate the soldiers. Without pay, the rough-and-ready soldiers were on the verge of mutiny. Margaret Brent, fearless as ever, stepped in to avert the crisis. Her calm diplomacy placated the soldiers and gave her time to raise funds from Lord Baltimore’s estate to pay them. The grateful Maryland Assembly (comprised exclusively of men) extolled her praises in a letter to Lord Baltimore, stating “we do verily believe that your estate was better for the Colony’s safety at that time in her hands than in any man’s else. . . for the Soldiers would never have treated any other with. . .civility and respect. . . . She rather deserved favor and thanks from your Honor for her so much concurring to the public safety . . . .” She had saved the colony from disaster, and her male contemporaries were not too proud to admit it.
Margaret Brent is just one of the exceptional women that 29:11 Group is featuring in March for Women’s National History Month. If you want to learn more about Margaret Brent and her fantastic accomplishments against great odds, see the resources below. We hope that Margaret Brent’s actions are inspiring to you as an example of courage, perseverance and unwavering strength. Check back with us next week for another amazing story of female empowerment!
For more about Margaret Brent:
Margaret Brent: Lawyer, Landholder-Entrepreneur
Margaret Brent: America’s First Feminist
Margaret Brent (1601-1671)
If this makes your blood boil, too, then get out there and fight for women’s rights today! Sign a petition, hold a fundraiser, write your government representatives, or join a women’s freedom group. We are not powerless to effect change if we are passionate about it. As our former first lady, Michelle Obama, has said: “There is no limit to what we, as women, can accomplish.” Maryland State Archives, Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly April 2 – 21, 1649, volume 1, page 239.